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Thai vote goes smoothly as protesters regroup near Bangkok lakes

Source: Reuters - Sun, 2 Mar 2014 07:35 GMT
Author: Reuters
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* Voting in re-run elections largely smooth and peaceful

* Anti-government protesters dismantle some sites, move to lakeside camp

* Protest numbers dwindle, but leader says government will want talks (Adds quotes, protesters decamping)

By Khettiya Jittapong and Nick Macfie

BANGKOK, March 2 (Reuters) - Thailand held re-run elections in five provinces where voting was disrupted in last month's poll by anti-government protesters who decamped from a main Bangkok intersection on Sunday and moved inside a central park.

There were no reports of violence at Sunday's vote, although gunfire and at least two explosions had raised tension in Bangkok before the original Feb. 2 general election.

Whatever the result, the vote alone cannot restore stability in a deeply polarised country popular with tourists and investors yet blighted by eight years of political turmoil.

The protesters, seeking to unseat Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, gathered in central Lumpini Park, where hundreds already sleep in tents alongside boating lakes and under trees, after protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban said they would abandon other sites in the city.

Anti-government posters saying "Get out!" and "Stop cheating farmers!", a reference to a failed rice subsidy scheme, blew in the dust past abandoned Suthep cutouts as traffic began to ease its way through the intersection on the edge of the Silom financial district.

Another protest site was dismantled, with stages, huge screens, giant speakers and amplifiers, tents, stalls and mobile toilets cleared away overnight, but the elevated highway along the south side of Lumpini Park was still blocked by tyres and sandbags.

Voting was disrupted on Feb. 2 in 18 percent of constituencies, 69 out of 375, nationwide, the Election Commission said, affecting 18 of 77 provinces.

Election re-runs planned for April in other provinces have been suspended pending a court decision on procedures.

Election Commission secretary-general Puchong Nutrawong said voting had gone ahead peacefully. About 20 protesters blew whistles at a polling station in Petchburi province, southwest of the capital, but did nothing to block voting.

"They came to show symbolic protest and they have already gone," he said, not giving details of voter turnout. "Generally, polls are running smoothly."

SUTHEP TAKES TO THE STAGE

The demonstrators, who have blocked intersections in the capital for weeks, say Yingluck must resign and make way for an appointed "people's council" to overhaul a political system they say has been taken hostage by her billionaire brother and former premier, Thaksin Shinawatra.

The election is almost certain to return Yingluck to power, thanks to her support base in the largely rural north and northeast, a result the opposition will never accept.

The protracted crisis pits the Bangkok-based middle class and royalist establishment against the mostly poor, rural supporters of the Shinawatra family.

Suthep, who has proposed talks with Yingluck, did not mention the voting in an address at the new stage at Lumpini, but said he was confident the government will want to negotiate while he continues to attack businesses of the Shinawatra family, a tactic introduced last month.

"I'm sure that he government will send representatives to ask for negotiations with us," he said.

Protest numbers had dwindled amid attacks on various camps with grenades and guns. Three people were killed when a grenade was thrown into a busy shopping area near one camp last Sunday.

But most of the city has been unaffected. Twenty people have been killed in protest-related violence in Bangkok since Nov. 30 and three in the eastern province of Trat.

Suthep said he was arranging a concert to help families of the victims. "We will take care of each other and we won't abandon them," he said. (Additional reporting by Alan Raybould; Writing by Nick Macfie; Editing by Paul Tait)

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